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Study Shows Phones May Actually Improve Memory — When Used Correctly

A new study shows that using digital devices to help remember things might not actually harm your brain.

A Black dad and his son look at his son's phone, while his son wears blue headphones

For many, it’s hard to imagine what life would be like without a phone to answer all our questions, navigate us to new places and store important information and details about our days. Yet, what happens when you don’t have your phone on you anymore?

You shouldn’t worry too much about that! According to a new study, published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, smartphones may actually make your memory skills better, not worse.

Neuroscientists have long been researching whether the excessive use of phones and tablets can be linked with the development of “digital dementia” — a decline in cognitive abilities, such as memory, caused by smartphone overuse. But the scientific jury is out on how bad this actually might be, if bad at all.

“The supposed harm of using your phone as a memory device can actually be seen as a benefit,” says Sam Gilbert, Ph.D., a professor at the University College London (UCL) Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience and lead author of the new study. “By offloading information from our brains to our phones, this can free us to use our minds for other purposes.”

To test this, Gilbert’s team had more than 150 participants between the ages of 18 and 71 play a memory game on a computer tablet 16 different times. The volunteers saw several yellow circles on their screen: Some of them briefly glowed pink and others glowed blue, and all of them had varied numerical values, only to blend back in with the rest of the yellow circles with no value briefly after. Then, participants had to drag the circles, either left or right according to their color, in ascending order of value — remembering both the values and color that had disappeared. Placing the higher value circles was more important though, getting participants a greater monetary reward after the game. The players had a helping hand; for eight game rounds, they could use the phone to set reminders, and for the other eight, they had to remember on their own.

The scientists concluded that the players’ memory for the more important circles — the ones with higher numerical values — improved by 18% when they set reminders on their phone. But the participants also got 27% better at remembering the “low-value” blue and pink circles, for which they hadn’t set up any reminders during the experiment.

According to Gilbert, this suggests that when players used the phone like an “external memory,” it helped them remember information and freed up space for better remembering other stuff. The phone basically helped their brains better prioritize memory storage.

“We can only store a limited amount of information in short-term memory, so it’s sensible to use it for unsaved information if we can rely on our devices for other information,” says Gilbert.

In fact, when the ability to set reminders was lost halfway through the game, players could better remember those low-value circles rather than the high-value circles. This suggests that they may have relied on the phone reminders too much — ultimately forgetting about the information in their own memory, or never even committing it to their memory in the first place, as if they hadn’t actually been paying attention, knowing the phone had a reminder.

“We need to make sure we back up anything important, otherwise it can be lost if the device fails,” says Gilbert.

But — and there is a big ‘but’ — these experiments were done in the laboratory. The memory game was actually played on a tablet computer, rather than on a smartphone. There needs to be more research on smartphones specifically and on everyday life use before we declare that setting phone reminders helps memory. Because maybe smartphones can make us better at remembering circles, but not dates and names, for example. Moving forward, Gilbert and his team will also examine how the memory effects of smartphone reminders change across the lifespan, and in real-case scenarios.

According to Oliver Hardt, Ph.D., a professor of the neurobiology of memory at McGill University in Montreal, a lot of people use analog systems as “external storage devices” — such as diaries or agendas, so this is just another example of how they can come in handy. But “using the smartphone for this must then be weighed against the disadvantages smartphones can have, like the distractions,” Hardt says.

Everybody should work on developing insight into their own memory abilities in order to use them optimally, Gilbert says. People set reminders when they think they will forget something, not necessarily when they will actually forget it. So the better we get to know the strengths and limitations of our own memory, the better we will use tools such as smartphones for additional support, says Gilbert.

“I don’t think people should worry about using their phones as memory devices. In my opinion, fears of ‘digital amnesia’ or ‘digital dementia’ are overstated, and they are not supported by the evidence we have,” says Gilbert. “On the other hand, there is clear evidence that phones and other devices can benefit memory.”